There are more than 3,000 local jails in the United States and another few thousand courthouses. In some people’s eyes, these institutions are monuments to public safety; to others, they represent the forces driving mass incarceration. This fall, a building will open in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood that hopes to become a different sort of community landmark, dedicated both to keeping the community safe and to breaking the cycle of poverty and imprisonment.
For years, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a local nonprofit focused on community-building and reducing incarceration, and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC United), which fights for fair wages for restaurant workers, collaborated to develop the concept for Restore Oakland, a nonprofit hub and community center. In a 20,000-square-foot building catty-corner from the Fruitvale BART station, Restore Oakland will house local organizations and provide job training and housing assistance. A fine-dining restaurant called COLORS—whose staff will include formerly incarcerated people—a café, and a kitchen with space for entrepreneurs to run incubators will open on the ground floor.
Restore Oakland is named for the restorative-justice work that will take place there: This is an approach to dealing with crime that brings together the victim and the wrongdoer to resolve the harm caused, outside of court. At least two youth-oriented restorative-justice nonprofits, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY) and Community Works West, will have office space in the building. They partner with the Alameda County District Attorney’s office to divert cases involving people aged 15 to 24 into community conferencing, and have them meet the people they’ve harmed before charges are finalized; and with probation officers, to ease the transition into the community and reduce recidivism.
After a soft launch this July, nonprofits are already filling the rooms. The restaurant and facilities will be fully operational by September.
“Too often, when people think of the term ‘public safety,’ they’re thinking of punishment and prisons,” said Zachary Norris, the executive director of the Ella Baker Center. “We felt a need for something equally tangible, equally visible, in concrete, brick, and mortar form.”
For Bay Area nonprofits contending with rising rents, laying a long-term stake in anything brick and mortar has been difficult. The Ella Baker Center has occupied nine different office spaces over its 20-year history. Securing an eviction-proof gathering hub could be transformative for the city, Norris says, and the nonprofits that serve it: “If we’re going to have strong communities, we need strong community-centered institutions.”
The project was funded in part by an anonymous donation of $1 million, Next City reported, and supported with new-market tax credits. In its previous incarnations, the building had been a nightclub and a department store; most recently, it had been filled with a rabbit warren of small shops and cobweb-filled rooms. When the Ella Baker Center and ROC purchased it, they turned to the Oakland-based activist architect Deanna Van Buren, co-founder of the architecture and real estate non-profit Designing Justice + Designing Spaces.
Van Buren has built her career around the idea of a world without prisons. Her firm’s past projects include the Near Westside Peacemaking Center in Syracuse, New York, and The Women’s Mobile Refuge Center, which will shelter San Francisco women who were recently released from jail or have experienced domestic abuse. In 2018, she was the recipient of the University of California, Berkeley’s Berkeley-Rupp Architecture Professorship and Prize.
“One of the big dreams out of this space is: what would it look like to have a place where anybody in this neighborhood, instead of calling the police, this is a space they come to,” Van Buren said, as she took CityLab on a tour of the building. “It’s an opportunity for folks to work together, and talk together, and work with non-profits.”
Restore Oakland will be the only dedicated hub for restorative justice in the entire U.S., Van Buren and Norris say. Oakland is hyper-diverse, but the legacy of incarceration there has disproportionately impacted African Americans: According to city data, black Oaklanders are almost 13 times more likely to be arrested for a felony than white Oaklanders, and 8.6 percent more likely to be in jail. The city has long been, and remains, a center for anti-incarceration activism.
In the city’s Temescal neighborhood, the prison abolition group that Angela Davis co-founded, Critical Resistance, just acquired a 7,000-square-foot store that once sold baby goods. It plans to turn it into a “real-life Wakanda Institute,” according to KQED. Oakland Ceasefire, launched in 2012, uses “group violence intervention” to reduce gun violence; the Alameda County Bar Association credits it, along with more targeted policing by Oakland’s police department, with getting Oakland to its “lowest number of homicides in almost 20 years” in 2018.
Today, a lot of local rehabilitation work and organizing takes place in homes or in decentralized office buildings scattered around the area, says Reetu Mody, Restore Oakland’s interim executive director. But with the heightened risk of immigration enforcement raids, Mody says people have been more reluctant to open their doors.
Restore Oakland will offer a safe, collaborative meeting environment for those activists, she says. Building on the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, much of which was planned in the basements of churches and libraries, the center features several meeting rooms on the basement floor. “There is something [important] about knowing you’re doing subversive work underground,” said Mody.
Causa Justa/Just Cause will operate a housing rights clinic on the first floor; the Ella Baker Center, RJOY, and Community Works West have offices on the second floor.
Van Buren has baked restorative-justice principles into the design of Restore Oakland. A room for conflict resolution and action planning has two entrances, and two adjacent spaces where people can cool off and speak privately. It’s pale blue, a color chosen for being calm and soothing. One wall is a chalkboard; on the day I visited, organizers had sketched concentric circles representing the ripple effects of healing on a community. “Change the narrative,” someone had written in pink capital letters; “fostering growth,” read another note, a flower blooming beneath it.
The restaurant, too, is meant to fulfill a twofold promise: providing more points of connection and giving people pathways into stable work through a training kitchen. “We’re finding that in most of our projects, food is an anchor,” said Van Buren.
Government efforts to reduce mass incarceration have often been tantamount to “shifting deck chairs on the Titanic,” the Ella Baker Center’s Norris says: Ankle monitors and probation have supplanted investments in economic justice and opportunity. At Restore Oakland, Norris hopes that the web of resources will get to a more holistic solution.
Though he hopes that the model can be replicated across the Bay Area and the country, Restore Oakland’s location—adjacent to the Fruitvale BART station, deep within East Oakland—is significant. It’s at the Fruitvale BART station that 22-year-old Oscar Grant was killed by a police officer in 2009, and around the corner that a new Transit Village has risen in an effort to stymie gentrification.
“[Fruitvale] is one of the most diverse neighborhoods within an already really diverse City of Oakland,” said Norris. “We think it’s a great place to demonstrate that you can do development in the interest of people.”
But Restore Oakland is not just open to people in the immediate vicinity—because of displacement and migration, the center will serve clients from farther afield. “I don’t think we’re going to define … who’s part of the Bay, or what is Oakland,” said Mody. “So much of what Oakland is was created by people who are being forced to leave.”
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